The Difference Between “Hurt” and “Injure”

17 Apr

     Anyone who has followed the NFL scandal involving the New Orleans Saints’ program to offer “bounty” payments for knocking opposing players out of the game has heard a lot of talk about football players trying to hurt other players. There has been a good deal of outrage over the idea of players trying to intentionally hurt each other on the field, as if this were somehow not a normal part of the sport. But much of that outrage has come from media types who have never, themselves, been football players.
     Those who have been seriously involved in hardcore combat sports (and I think you can loosely classify football as a combat sport) may have a slightly different take on the legitimacy of trying to “hurt” an opponent. By definition, what you are doing as part of a boxing match, an MMA contest, or a football game (at least in the case of a defensive player trying to hit an offensive player) is to hurt them. You cannot hit someone with full force and expect not to hurt them. Being punched in the face, slammed on the ground or run into at full speed by a 250 pound linebacker hurts! There is no way around it. And no one executes such movements in the course of a fight or football game simply for the sake of doing them. Every time you execute such a move, you would like it to be decisive and finish off your opponent for the day.
     This may sound callous and brutal but it is the nature of combat sports. No boxer or MMA fighter goes into a match saying “I want to win but I don’t actually want to knock my opponent out or cause him pain”. You generally can’t win a fight without attempting to do such things. The problem observers who are not intimately involved as participants in these sports seem to have is a lack of clarity on the difference between hurting someone and seriously injuring someone.
     Naturally, any time you hit someone hard enough to knock them out, you are causing them an injury. And concussions are certainly not to be taken lightly. But experienced competitors in combat sports come to accept this possibility as part of their job. It’s something they deal with on a regular basis. So the idea of doing this to someone else is not a moral taboo to such athletes. In fact, it’s often a benchmark of success. Most people who have seriously engaged in combat sports at a high level are well familiar with the warm feeling of satisfaction that comes from dropping an opponent with a hard punch or slapping on a perfect submission hold that makes someone squeal in pain. These are signs that you have performed correctly. Even in the gym, when practicing with friends, serious fighters will still feel a sense of proper accomplishment when they put some hurt on their training partner. When your punches aren’t hurting anyone or when your submission holds aren’t causing people pain, you know you’re doing something wrong and will, likely, feel a sense of disappointment.
     However, the thing to keep in mind here is that almost none of the professional athletes in question want to permanently hurt their opponent. This may seem like a fine distinction but it is an important one. A fighter may want to knock an opponent out. In some cases, where there’s a legitimate sense of bad blood, he may even take some satisfaction in seeing that opponent carried out of the ring or cage. But in all my time as a fan, a competitor and a reporter covering combat sports, I have never seen a professional athlete who I thought truly wanted to end the career of another competitor. Sure, many of them talk tough before fights and say all the terrible things they want to do to an opponent. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that, deep down in his heart, would not have felt badly if he did cause serious, permanent injury to an opponent in the course of a match. This is evidenced by how, in almost all cases, when a fight is concluded, even the bitterest of rivals will hug it out. There is a mutual respect present and, beyond that, a general sense of humanity present in almost all normal human beings in such circumstances. Studies of American soldiers done following WW II showed that the vast majority of soldiers who had been in combat actually claimed to have never killed anyone. Supposedly, they would intentionally miss the enemy with their gun shots because they could not bring themselves to kill another human being.
     Athletes in combat sports are no less human beings and, on a certain level, they can empathize even with the most hated of opponents. Thus, a football player might want to knock a player out of a game, might even take some measure of satisfaction in sending him to the hospital. But very few of them want to end that player’s career. They know that, just as they do, their opponents have bills to pay, families to support and lives to lead beyond the game.
     Obviously, taking it to the level of causing severe, career threatening injuries to an opponent is crossing a line in most combat sports and any New Orleans Saints coaches or players who intentionally crossed that line should be held accountable. But don’t confuse trying to injure someone with trying to hurt them. After all, as Mike Tyson once famously said about boxing, this is “the hurt business.”

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